Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Curiouser and Curiouser", An intriguing set of vintage W. Britains Ltd. toy soldiers

Am borrowing a quote from Lewis Carroll's classic, "Alice in Wonderland". Recently listed on e-Bay was a set of vintage W. Britains Ltd. toy soldiers titled; "Britains Regiments of All Nations 334 U.S. Cavalry 54mm. Metal” Included with the listing was a set of 9 photographs showing the figures. To anyone knowledgeable in old Britains, the set of 5 (4 troopers and officer) were immediately recognizable as Set No.170, Greek Cavalry, a very rare and highly collectible set. The known original sets consist of two troopers on black horses and two troopers on brown horses, with the officer mounted on a dapple grey (essentially white) horse.

In the set being offered all the trooper’s horses were black (an early clue, as the original brown color used is difficult to replicate), but this in and of itself, is never absolutely conclusive with Britains. All the horses were in the correct configuration (aid-de-camp for troopers, cantering for the officer). The set was originally issued in its first version in 1913 to 1925, when it was revised in a second version which was available until 1941. The set being offered was in a Regiment of All Nations cavalry sized box (introduced in 1946 after World War II), without the insert tie card. Obviously for purposes of valuation the set is considered unboxed. Even unboxed the figures are considered both rare and valuable. Near the zenith of Britains prices (1994) James Opie rated the rarity of a second version unboxed set at 75 (first version boxed at 90) on a logarithmic scale of 100, with a value of £700.00 ($1,038.03 USD) for the unboxed set.While in recent years the prices realized at auction for vintage Britains has significantly decreased, the prices on rarer sets have been for the most part at least stable, with increases occurring in some cases. The hammer price on Greek Cavalry sets has fluctuated depending on the condition, and presence of an original box and tie card (See discussion below). 

The auction was listed for a 7 day duration and initiated at $30.00. There was very little activity (2 bidders), until the closing day/hour of the auction. There were a total of nine bidders, of which I’m not certain how many of those realized what they were looking at. Perhaps they were smarter than I think, but don’t believe that to be the case as the price did jump significantly in the closing hours. What I believe to be the case are the efforts of a master counterfeiter, who was able to restore the set to virtually an undetectable "factory new" condition. In any event, and this may be a rationalization, I was able with the aid of sniper bidding, to win the auction at a relatively bargain price, even as a restoration. Other than the color of the horses, the only other thing I’ve been able to spot is an extremely small residual of brown paint near the hoof of one of trooper’s black horses, the positioning of the white cap-bands (more accurate in this set than Britains, see prints below), and the color of the metallic brown in the carbines. In any event finding another comparable set in this condition for the price is extremely remote, at least in my lifetime.

In the span of years from 2001 to 2013 there have only been 10 sets of Greek Cavalry come up for auction at Vectis Auctions Ltd. Six sets have been boxed. That’s less than one set per year (a significant indicator of rarity). The additional sets which were auctioned at Bonhams (James Opie), Bosley's, Wallis &Wallis, Phillip's, Christie's, Old Toy Soldier Auctions, U.S.A., and other auction houses in the same period, and are known to the author at this time, total an additional five. For the boxed sets at Vectis, the prices realized have ranged from £540.00 (in 2011) to £1800.00 (in 2006) for an average of £1170.00 ($1759.50 USD). The remaining 4 unboxed sets have ranged from £110.00 (in 2004) to £900.00 (in 2004) for an average of £497.50 ($748.07 USD).  This set on e-Bay sold for $261.00, even if totally restored that’s only 35% of the average value of an unboxed set. In the author's opinion this hardly seems worth the effort, if the objective was to deceive and profit.

In all fairness to the seller, he advised that someone during the course of the auction had discussed with him that the set was Set No.105, and Greek Officers. He questioned whether that made a difference to me, offering to cancel the sale. This information being only partially correct. At the price paid I choose to keep the set as a curiosity, as well as being an excellent restoration. As can be observed in the following photographs, in my personal opinion the set is truly a masterful piece of restoration art, and certainly unique. Upon close examination I believe that the majority of vintage Britains collectors will concur. Am including a couple of photographs from Vectis Auctions Ltd. of examples of the same set they have had up for recent past auctions for direct comparison. Counterfeiting of old toy soldier sets is to my knowledge not frequently even mentioned, if at all, in any of the standard reference books. The single exception known to the author being James Opie's recent excellent book, "Collecting Toy Soldiers in the 21st Century" (pp. 80-82), which is highly instructive. The author would welcome any comments by vintage Britains collectors on this, or any other set they may have come across of dubious origin/physical characteristics.

The following photographs are examples of the same set which have been auctioned by Vectis Auctions Ltd. in recent years. Note difference in the positions of horse's legs between sets. The one configuration of horse is referred to as an Aide-de-Camp (troopers), the other as Cantering (officer).

W. Britains Ltd. always prided itself on the accuracy portrayed in its sets, and frequently would correct errors, as well as revise a set of toy soldiers in the event that the uniform was changed in the actual unit they portrayed. In the case of the Greek Cavalry they were "spot on" as can be seen in the following contemporary prints. The only difference being the white plumes added in parade dress. Also note the white frogging on parade versus the black frogging in the field. In 1908 the Greek Army introduced a new khaki field uniform. In this case however, Britains chose to retain the older, more colorful, green uniform when its set was first introduced in 1913.

Greek Cavalry on parade, circa 1880-1910

Greek Cavalry patrol on reconnaissance, circa 1910
The officer wears the old field uniform, while the
 troopers wear the new khaki field uniform introduced
 in 1908 

A few years ago a similar case of complete misidentification occurred on e-Bay where some W. Britains Ltd. British Lancers, recall either 12th or 9th, were incorrectly listed as Britains Set No. 220 Uruguayan Cavalry, trotting with Officer (Ejercito del Uruguay: Blandengues de Artigas). In this case it was understandable, as the seller had a very limited knowledge of Britains, and the end label on the box indeed said Set No.220 Uruguayan Cavalry, etc. The following photographs are first what was being offered, then two photographs of the correct set.

For those individuals who may be interested in additional information, based upon the author's limited knowledge, you may want to scan the following article within this blog;

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